Words by Chas Smith.
The Bible says that one of Noah’s son Ham settled in Yemen, after the flood, and the Queen of Sheba came from here and went to visit the famous King Solomon.
Muhammad praises Yemenis by name for their early adoption of Islam and their fiery spirit. Yemen was Sheba. Yemen was great. Their history makes them angrier because they feel forgotten by the wheel of fortuna. They feel they have done so much but are discarded by today. They feel like Portugal, a country that used to rule the world’s seas but now goes embarrassingly bankrupt. But still, they have their fiery spirit, unlike the Portuguese.
Yemen is more radicalized than almost anywhere. Yes, Yemen has been called many things and is many things and is also one of the finest places on earth because it is poor, angry, forgotten, more angry, fiery, agitated, deluded and totally surfable. Like, wow surfable.
We landed in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and met with our contact, a rich entrepreneur who loved the idea of surf. He had given us a decent Toyota Landcruiser and two hellion bodyguards and permits to check every millimeter of Yemen’s coast. The permits are difficult things to obtain, for the layman, but not for our contact. He was the Prime Minister’s son and he had schooled at Brown and really loved the idea of surf.
Sana’a was incredible, unlike anything I had seen. I had been to the Middle East too many times previously. I had studied at the American University of Cairo, had later traveled, or attempted to travel from Cairo to Syria but got waylaid in a Jordanian hospital for seven days with an almost deadly case of amoebic dysentery, had gone back to Syria and also Lebanon. But Sana’a was different. Its old town looked like a gingerbread village. Amazingly complex mud brick lined with white paint. Men walked around chewing a narcotic leaf called qat and each of them had a giant knife attached to their belt called a jambiya.
But Sana’a was inland, in the mountains, and so we drove our Landcruiser and hellion bodyguards to the coast, to Aden, as quickly as we could. Our bodyguards went out, carousing for prostitutes, which is no easy thing in a radicalized Islamic country and we went to the beach expecting nothing but Horn of Africa island shadow. But there, rolling in, rolling somehow around the Horn, were fun little three footers peeling and dancing in the almost setting sun. The air was oven hot, as humid as a mouth, and the water was not much different but we surfed and could not believe we were surfing.
Surfing in Yemen.
Adventure narrative is always clichéd, or almost always, and especially surf adventure narrative and especially especially surf adventure narrative held carelessly in a memory sieve. It plays out awkwardly and causes reading eyes to glaze with familiarity. The same themes. Discovery, hardship, discovery, the simple joys of sleeping on dirt and surfing clean rights or lefts. Always the same. But, I will say, there is also something cute about it. Something fresh and youthfully naïve and, many years ago, we were cute and naïve too. Everything that was happening happened only to us. We were the first surf adventurers on earth.
"Paddling into an unknown wave is always nerve-wracking, and it was more nerve-wracking here because Al-Qaeda had tried to kidnap or kill us that morning."
That night, after our bodyguards had had their fill of prostitute, we went out for fish dinner near the port. Aden is historical, the British once had an outpost here back when they ruled the world, but now it is sprawling poverty. But the fish was good and we received plenty of livid stares from bearded men. Afterward some of them chased us through town, shaking their pistols out their truck windows while our bodyguards shouted and cursed in Arabic. It felt fine. It felt like it should. We went to sleep oblivious and happy and cute.
And we drove by beachbreaks chewing qat and staring at our map, waiting to get to Mukallah where we hoped the real surf would begin. The coast road turned to dirt after some time and then washed out completely. We had to crawl inland to spend the night in a town called ‘Ataq pronounced “attack." We stopped at the only hotel around, shuffled upstairs, turned on Arabic music videos and fell asleep to the whine.
In the morning we shuffled downstairs to a lobby filled with Yemeni soldiers. They had not watched Arabic music videos. They had not slept. Their eyes were red and their uniforms sandy dirty. Their commander informed us that our presence had attracted the attention of Al-Qaeda and the soldiers had spent the night battling them. There had been numerous casualties, one soldier said, seventeen on Al-Qaeda’s side and zero on the military’s but his numbers could not be independently verified.
We thanked them on behalf of surfers everywhere and made our way back to the coast, slowly poking our way to Mukallah. I remember, when we go close, that the sun was near setting, again. Great regions are always entered when the sun is near setting. It is cinematic as all of life should be.
Before we even got to Mukallah, proper, we could see a great change in costal geography. Dull flatness turned into rocky voluptuousness. The road hugged the sea precariously here. And then close to Mukallah there it was. A rocky strand of beach, a point, and a right point break. I rubbed my eyes. Was I seeing things? Was I qat high? The water was murky and black and strange. We paddled out without even pausing. Paddling into an unknown, never surfed wave is always nerve-wracking and it was more nerve-wracking here because Al-Qaeda had theoretically tried to kidnap or kill us that very morning. But we paddled. And we floated where we thought the lineup should be and waited. And then a set came and we surfed. We surfed barreling head plus rights that were very fun.
Mukallah is a large town by Yemeni standards, maybe 300,000 people call it home, and it has a great old town. Mukallah has been international since before being international was considered chic. We holed up in a hotel and set out to find dinner. Our bodyguards did not like where we were staying because there were too many beards, as they described it, but our bodyguards were, again, hellions, always and forever scrounging for prostitutes and drink, so they may have been more concerned with their own safety and ease of acquiring what they desired.
Prostitutes and drink are not easy to find in a place that is 98% Islamic and devout. I had never seen so many go to mosque every day. Egyptians will go on Friday, if they feel like it. Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese will go rarely. Yemenis went to mosque every single evening. But still, our bodyguards managed and would take Polaroid pictures of their conquests and show them off. They had poor taste.